Papaver Somniferum during the European Neolithic

“The opium poppy has been cultivated since Neolithic times, perhaps in the first place for poppy-seed oil, but who can doubt that its narcotic property enhanced its value” (Dimbleby 1967).

Opium alkaloids are a group of chemical compounds naturally occurring in Papaver somniferum (the Opium Poppy). They are found in all parts of the plant, but their highest concentrations are present in opium, the dried milky latex of the immature seed pods of opium poppy. Opium is the source of the so called opiates, including morphine, codeine, thebaine, papaverine, noscapine, and narceine.

Of these the most potent analgesic and euphorigenic opium alkaloid is morphine. Usually opium induces mild euphoria, somnolence and in high doses may provide pleasant hallucinations.

In historical times, beginning with the Sumerian culture, opium besides its medical importance was used as intoxicant. The mature seeds of the plant are virtually free of any alkaloid and are important as food. They are still used predominantly in baked goods, as an ingredient in composite dishes or sprinkled on top of a food (for example in my home country Austria). Because of their high oil content, edible oil is also produces from the seeds.

Up to now the prehistoric lake-side villages of Switzerland have yielded the most numerous finds of Papaver somniferum capsules and seeds. There are numerous finds from Neolithic contexts, mainly from Switzerland, but with some from south-west Germany and north Italy. Excavations at Egolzwil, an archaeological site located in Switzerland’s Lucerne canton, have revealed signs of poppy cultivation dating back more than six thousand years, including poppy seed cakes and poppy heads. Evidence suggests that poppies were the most common crop at Egolzwil, more common than club wheat, barley, or flax.

P. Somniferum in Italy: The earliest evidence of opium poppy use in Europe comes from the exiting underwater archaeological site at La Marmotta, an early Neolithic “Impressed Ware” and “Sasso facies” -ware site in Lake Bracciano, Italy, northwest of Rome. La Marmotta was occupied by Neolithic farmers at 5,7-5,2 k.a. Cal BC. The excavators of Marmotta are convinced that the people who settled at La Marmotta had come from across the Mediterranean. This assumption is based on the pottery, which resembles to early Neolithic pottery found in Thessaly, a female statuette carved in soapstone, which resembles sculptures from the early Neolithic of the Levant and Greek and and the paucity of evidence for any other contemporaneous Neolithic site in Latium area. In addition, given the model boats, that were found at the site along with a well-preserved longboat found buried in the mud, it seems likely that there was considerable water traffic between the La Marmotta site and human communities from other shores of the sea.

P. Somniferum in Iberia: On the Iberian Peninsula, the early Neolithic sites of La Lámpara and La Revilla del Campo in the Meseta Norte plateau in central Spain gave evidence for early agriculture from the last third of the 6th millennium BC In this context several wheats and Papaver somniferum has been repeatedly documented. At Cuevo de los Murciélagos (Cave of the Bats, a Neolithic burial site located in Albuñol, Granada, in southern Spain) there is still more evidence of poppy usage. Thanks to the cave’s arid conditions, the round, woven grass bags that were buried with the dead have been preserved, along with their contents- large numbers of poppy capsules, which have been dated to more than 4 k.a. CalBC.

P. Somniferum in the Linearbandkeramik (LBK): Radiocarbon dates show that the LBK began in Hungary within the context of the Starcevo-Koros culture around 5, 7 calBC and already arrived at the Rhine about 5,5 calBC, suggesting a rapid but somewhat more gradual movement of ideas or people. LBK communities were well equipped with poppy seeds, beginning with Phase II of this culture. At this time in the Rhineland for example, seeds of Papaver  somniferum have been found at five LBK settlements (Oekoven, Aldenhoven, Lamersdorf, Garsdorf and Langweiler).

It has been suggested that poppies were introduced to LBK agriculture through trade with the La Hoguette culture, a group known primarily by its distinctive bone-tempered pottery. The La Hoguette culture is believed to have originated in southern and southwestern France. They descended from an earlier impressed ware culture that resided on the shores of the Mediterranean. La Hoguette and LBK pottery has been found together at many sites east and west of the Rhine, suggesting that contact and trade took place between the two cultures.

Watercolor from Clutius (17th Century)

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One Response to Papaver Somniferum during the European Neolithic

  1. Arthur J. Boucot says:

    I would greatly appreciate references to Neolithic sites where Papaver somniferum has been documented.

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